Del Paso Country Club is set to once again be the host site for one of America’s most prestigious golf championships, the 2015 U.S. Senior Open, June 22-28.
Founded in 1916, Del Paso Country Club sits on land where onetime owner James Ben Ali Haggin trained thoroughbreds. Who knew it would one day become Sacramento’s thoroughbred golf club.
Though Del Paso’s championship cachet includes hosting the 1957 and 1976 U.S. Women’s Amateur Championships, and the 1960 U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur it’s the 1982 U.S. Women’s Open that still stands out.
JoAnne (Gunderson) Carner, who won the 1957 Amateur Championship at Del Paso returned to play a leading role in the tournament. By that time Carner was one of the premier names in women’s golf. She was also one of the favorites and actually took the first round lead with a 69 on the then par-72 track.
Meanwhile, Janet Alex, a relatively unknown player, who had dropped out of college to marry golf teacher Chuck Alex, opened the tournament with a 2-under-par 70, just one shot behind.
Beth Daniel, another of the glamour names in the field that week, fired three consecutive 71s to take the third round lead, moving a shot ahead of Carner. Alex quietly stayed among the leaders by following her first round 70 with scores of 73-72.
While her golf game was peaking that week, her marriage was not.
“I’m going to watch boxing tomorrow because I know you are not going to win,” she recalled her husband telling her during a Saturday evening call home.
“That sort of stirred the pot,” she added.
While the marquee pairing of Carner and Daniel became Sunday’s focus, Alex was paired with easy going Sacramentan, Carole Jo Callison. By the time Daniel bogeyed the 13th hole and Carner three-putted, Alex was on her way to shooting a final round 68—the best score of the entire week.
True to form for an Open, Alex was the only golfer in the field to finish below par. Her 5-under 283 earned a first-place check of $27,315, a good sum in those days.
After the presentation ceremony the course superintendent gave her the flag from the 18th hole saying, “I thought you should have this.”
While her marriage ended the following year, the framed flag still hangs in her office at Aguila Golf Course on the outskirts of Phoenix where she is Head Golf Professional. It is an enduring reminder of her accomplishment 33 years ago at Del Paso Country Club.
She continued to play on the LPGA Tour until retiring in 1998. Though she posted 52 top-10 finishes during her career, she never won another tournament.
The Swing at Cancer Years
From 1972 through 2002 Del Paso further cemented itself as Sacramento’s landmark country club by hosting the Swing At Cancer Celebrity Pro-Am events. Started by Bob Hurst, the Swing at Cancer brought a whole coterie of entertainers and tour pros through the gates including the likes of Bob Hope, Glen Campbell, Sam Snead, Tom Watson, Billy Casper and more for a one-day charity fundraiser that usually followed the PGA Tour event in Napa.
Craig Dunnigan, a longtime club member recalls caddying for Johnny Miller at the 1976 Swing at Cancer event.
“On the fifth hole for his approach shot he asked me how far it was to the pin,” Dunnigan said. “I answered 95-100 yards. He barked, ‘which is it?’ Finally saying, ‘Know why I asked you that? Because five yards is a 15-foot putt.’”
In addition to perhaps being Sacramento’s longest running charity golf event, it has been speculated that the Swing at Cancer may have provided the original impetus for forming the Champions Tour.
By the turn of the new century, Del Paso due to its lack of length had grown obsolete in terms of tournament golf. Locally based designer Kyle Phillips, who’s resume includes the highly acclaimed Kingsbarns in Scotland, Morgan Creek in Roseville and work on Granite Bay Golf Club (prior to forming his own design firm), was brought in to renovate it. Phillips, known to passionately relish the finer details of merging modern design with historical perspective, oversaw the $11-million project. The end result is a course that went from a tired 6300-yard, par-72 into a vibrant 7100-yard, par-71 track that was once again capable of being a major tournament venue while maintaining the timeless charm of the classic layout.
“It (the tournament) will add shine on the gem that he (Kyle Phillips) created, said Dan Spector, General Chairman.
Spector took over as board president at DPCC in 2010 when the club set a priority to reconnect with the USGA and a bid to host a tournament was submitted.
“It was really the people there that swayed us as to a decision we should accept. They (club members) were doing it for the right reasons,” said Tim Flaherty, USGA’s Senior Director of the Senior Open.
The U.S. Senior Open Championship
In 1980 Roberto De Vicenzo won the inaugural U.S. Senior Open. For the next 10 years it was won mostly by golf’s grand brand names such as, Palmer (1981), Casper (1983), Player (1987, 1988), Trevino (1990) and Nicklaus (1991).
In 1992, an unknown cigar chomping club pro, Larry Laoretti, blew smoke on the field coming from seven shots behind leader, former Sacramento local Al Gieberger, after the second round to win and launch renewed dreams for paunchy club pros everywhere.
Laoretti, like Janet Alex, also never won another tournament but he too took Cinderella’s glass slipper and filled it with hope for longshots.
Fox Sports and the USGA are in the first year of a multi-year agreement. The broadcast team of Joe Buck and Greg Norman will work together for the first time at the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay. Local tour pros Scott McCarron and Natalie Gulbis will also join the on-course broadcast team.
The 2013 U.S. Senior Open in Omaha, Neb., may have set the high water mark for attendance with 157,126 tickets sold. Over 60,000 fans attended the weekend rounds, showing considerable senior power. The USGA does not release pre-event ticket sales numbers, but they did originally project about 125,000 tickets to be sold. We’ll find out soon enough.
Championship Director Brian Flajole, calls the Senior Open, “The biggest sporting event to come to Sacramento.”
The economic impact of a weeklong sporting event, is estimated to bring an additional 25,000 hotel nights, with more than 8,000 additional passengers passing through the airport and over $1-million sales tax revenue generated from the over $18-million in additional projected expenditures in the market. For a city that is still on the comeback trail after the recession, those are major numbers.
Simply put, the U.S. Senior Open is senior golf’s most coveted championship. This year there were 2,445 entries. There are 79 golfers that are fully exempt into the field, including Sacramento native son, Kevin Sutherland, who is also a member at Del Paso Country Club.
Sectional qualifying for non-exempt amateurs and professionals is already underway at 34 sites across the country and will wrap up June 4th. The final field will consist of 156 golfers.
In an interesting aside, the membership of Del Paso Country Club with the support of the USGA will also recognize The First Tee of Greater Sacramento junior golf program as a major local “beneficiary” of the event. Honoring the local First Tee program seems fitting. Originally SAY Golf (Sacramento Area Youth Golf) formed the model that became the national First Tee program.
The USGA is famously known for setting up golf courses in a manner that protects par at the expense of the players apparent mental health. Narrow fairways playing firm and fast, rough grown deep enough tickle your ankles, devilish green speeds and hold-your-breath pin positions.
“We want the players to have to think about what the golf ball will do once it hits the ground,” said Jeff Hall, USGA Director of Rules and Competitions. “The philosophy is consistent across all of our championships.”
Champions Tour player Paul Goydos, one of the players exempt into this year’s Senior Open may have summed it up best when he recently said, “Hit it where they mow.”
Ultimately a major tournament pits the players against the course as much as against each other. So what kind of test is Del Paso likely to offer?
In 2010, Del Paso hosted a U.S. Open sectional qualifying tournament and the results may provide a glimpse of possible drama.
The finishing stretch of holes, 16 through 18 are challenging. At the qualifier all three played over par.
Isaac “Sasquatch” Sanchez, of Golf Channel Big Break fame played in that qualifier.
“All three holes will have water in play with firm greens. They will have to hit real precise shots at hard targets. A real big swing hole could be number 16.”
“The winner will have to definitely find the fairway.”
Who’s going to argue with a six foot six inch, 300-pound guy with a Fu Manchu whose nickname is Sasquatch?
Tickets are still available and recently the USGA announced single day prices of $39. Kids 17 and under will be admitted free when accompanied by a ticketed adult and each adult can bring more than one child. Go to www.2015ussenioropen.com.
Vince Mastracco is Sacramento’s Golf Examiner. He spent 19 years on the radio hosting The Golf Talk Radio Show. These days he writes, guest hosts when broadcaster friends invite him, and works as a real estate agent. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He also invites you to find the free subscription button on this page and promises not to bore you.